Tales of two cities: Marrakech, Derna, and the great disasters

In the middle of the night, a video appeared on my computer screen, showing people fleeing in fear and a massive minaret swaying from side to side. "I couldn't believe my eyes," I exclaimed. The video had been shot in Marrakech, Morocco, and the minaret I saw belonged to the Koutoubia Mosque. The scenes from Jemaa el-Fna Square, where the mosque proudly stood, were no different. In fact, another historic mosque right next to the square had its minaret completely destroyed, rendering its prayer area unusable.

It was truly surprising to me that historic Marrakech, a city I had walked through every inch of, had suffered a serious earthquake disaster. Earthquakes were not expected or routine events in these parts. The last major earthquake in Moroccan history occurred in Agadir, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, in 1960, where 12,000 people lost their lives. Before the Agadir earthquake, another powerful earthquake in 1755 had devastated the regions of Fez and Meknes, with a death toll exceeding 15,000.

The epicenter of the earthquake that occurred on the evening of September 8, 2023, was the Haouz region in the Atlas Mountains, southwest of Marrakech. As details about the destruction in Haouz and its surroundings emerged in the following days, my surprise and sadness grew. The earthquake had claimed the lives of more than three thousand people and had also reduced the historic fabric of the city to rubble. Dozens of villages disappeared from the map, and the last remnants of the Almohad dynasty, the largest Muslim empire ever established on Moroccan soil, had turned to ruins. The grand mosque in Tinmel, which housed the tomb of Ibn Tumart (1080-1130), the founder and religious leader of the Almohads, was among the most significant losses.

(Ibn Tumart, one of the most prominent figures in Islamic history, embarked on a long journey at the beginning of his twenties that covered all the major scientific centers of the Muslim world, from Al-Andalus to Baghdad. After returning to the Maghreb following his extensive travels, he delivered sermons in the Atlas Mountains, which eventually led to the rise of the Almohad state. Quickly gaining supporters in Marrakech and other cities, Ibn Tumart's influence was so profound that the religious and political doctrine he created paved the way for the Almohad empire to emerge. Starting from 1145, the Almohads expanded into Al-Andalus, maintaining Marrakech as their capital in the Maghreb and choosing Seville (known today as Sevilla, Spain) as their center in the Iberian Peninsula. The magnificent minaret of the Seville Great Mosque, completed in 1176 (though converted into a church and later fitted with a Christian belfry known as "La Giralda" after Seville's fall in 1248), continues to shine as a brilliant legacy left by the Muslim Almohads in the heart of Catholic Spain.)

Following the earthquake, Morocco's response to the disaster was akin to a summary of the political tensions that had been prevalent in the Maghreb region in recent years. In the crucial first days when every second mattered in clearing the rubble, the Moroccan government announced that it would only accept aid from these four "friendly" countries: Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Rejecting the persistent offers of assistance from neighboring Algeria, due to the sovereignty crisis in Western Sahara, Morocco also refused to grant entry to search and rescue teams from Germany and France. In doing so, Rabat not only sent a strong message to countries that did not align with its stance on Western Sahara or disagreed on other issues but also punished the poor Moroccans who were trapped under the debris in the Atlas Mountains.

In response to growing criticism, the Moroccan Ministry of Interior had to provide an explanation for not allowing some foreign teams to enter the country, citing "coordination problems that could lead to chaos." However, this explanation was not convincing. The rejection of aid offers was even interpreted as an attempt to divert attention from the poverty and underdevelopment in the regions of the Atlas Mountains.

Right after the Marrakech earthquake, a hurricane and flood disaster struck the city of Derna in Libya. This natural disaster, in addition to being a natural event, revealed the accumulation of neglect and human-made mistakes. The discovery that two dams had not been maintained for decades, the deepening communication gap between the two rival governments within the country, and urban planning mistakes all contributed to the floods in Derna. These factors, along with others, turned the floods in Derna into a reflection of the political and social crisis that Libya was plunged into.

History has a tendency to repeat itself when lessons are not learned from mistakes and when errors are not corrected. Let's see if future generations will be able to learn from what we have witnessed today.

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Tales of two cities: Marrakech, Derna, and the great disasters
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